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Germany’s Western Front: 1914: Translations from the German Official History of the Great War, Part 1

Germany’s Western Front: 1914: Translations from the German Official History of the Great War, Part 1

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Germany’s Western Front: 1914: Translations from the German Official History of the Great War, Part 1

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Oct 31, 2013


X. The OHL, 3–4 September

Oct 31, 2013

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Germany’s Western Front - Wilfrid Laurier University Press












We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program for our publishing activities.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Germany’s Western Front : translations from the German official history of the Great War / Mark Osborne Humphries and John Maker, editors.

Translation of: Der Weltkrieg.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

Contents: V. 1. 1914, part 1

Also issued in electronic format.

ISBN 978-1-55458-373-7 (V. 1, part 1)

1. World War, 1914–1918—Germany. 2. World War, 1914–1918—Campaigns—Western Front. I. Humphries, Mark Osborne, 1981– II. Maker, John, 1974–

D531.G47 2013           940.4›144           C2012-904306-0


Electronic monograph issued in multiple formats.

Also issued in print format.

ISBN 978-1-55458-394-2 (V. 1, part 1 PDF).—ISBN 978-1-55458-395-9 (V. 1, part 1 EPUB)

1. World War, 1914–1918—Germany. 2. World War, 1914–1918—Campaigns—Western Front. I. Humphries, Mark Osborne, 1981– II. Maker, John, 1974–

D531.G47 2013           940.4›144           C2012-904307-9

Cover design by Blakeley Words+Pictures. Cover photograph by Heinrich Hoffman/Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz. Text design by Catharine Bonas-Taylor.

© 2013 Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies and

Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

This book is printed on FSC recycled paper and is certified Ecologo. It is made from 100% post-consumer fibre, processed chlorine free, and manufactured using biogas energy.

Printed in Canada

Every reasonable effort has been made to acquire permission for copyright material used in this text, and to acknowledge all such indebtedness accurately. Any errors and omissions called to the publisher’s attention will be corrected in future printings.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the publisher or a licence from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For an Access Copyright licence, visit www.accesscopyright.ca or call toll free to 1-800-893-5777.









The Two-Front War and Comparison of Strengths

The Outbreak of War

The War’s Duration and Economic Management


The Historical Development of the Operative Idea

The Campaign Plan in 1914


The German Deployment in the West

Initial Border and Railway Security Operations in the West and the Occupation of Luxembourg

The Capture of Fortress Liège

The Strategic Reconnaissance

The Execution of the German Deployment in the West


The German OHL before the Start of the Advance

The Advance of the German Wheeling Wing, 18–20 August

The Right Wing (First, Second, and Third Armies)


The OHL before the Start of the Battle of the Frontiers

The Battles of Mons and Namur

The Operations of First, Second, and Third Armies on 21 August

The Operations of First, Second, and Third Armies on 22 August

Second and Third Armies, 23 August

Second and Third Armies on 24 August

The Capture of Namur

First Army’s Operations on 23 and 24 August

The OHL during the Frontier Battles


1. The Operations of the German Right Wing until 27 August

Second Army on 25 August

Third Army on 25 and 26 August

Second Army on 26 August

First Army’s Pursuit of the British from 25 to 27 August

Second and Third Armies on 27 August

The OHL during the Pursuit-Operations to 27 August





1. Third Army’s Battle North of the Aisne, 28–30 August

2. The Operations of Third and Fourth Armies on the Aisne, 31 August and 1 September


1. The Operations of First Army on the Somme and Avre, 28–30 August

2. The Battle at St. Quentin

The Beginning of the Battle, 28 August

The Battle on the Right German Flank on 29 August

The Battle on the Left German Flank on 29 August

Continuation and Conclusion of the Battle on 30 August

11. THE OHL, 29–30 AUGUST


1. First Army’s Crossing of the Oise (31 August)

2. Second Army’s Halt (31 August)

3. First Army’s Advance across the Aisne

4. Second Army’s Advance on the Aisne

5. First Army’s Pursuit Battle South of the Aisne

6. Second Army’s Crossing of the Aisne

7. Third Army’s Pursuit East of Reims



1. First Army Crosses the Marne

2. Second Army’s Advance towards the Marne

3. Third Army’s Pursuit Battles up to the River Vesle

4. First Army’s Operations South of the Marne

5. Second Army’s Pursuit across the Marne

6. Third Army Reaches the Marne






The Strength of the Mutual Forces on the Western Front on 22 August 1914





All maps and sketches have been translated and prepared by Mark Humphries from the original German maps and sketches provided with Der Weltkrieg volumes I and III.

Map 1: The Western Front – Northern France and Belgium

Map 2: The Western Front – Northeastern France, Belgium, and Luxembourg

Map 3: The Western Front – Alsace and Lorraine

Sketch 1: The Situation of Sixth and Seventh Armies on the Morning of 14 August 1914 before the Advance

Sketch 2: The Situation of First, Second, and Third Armies on the Morning of 21 August 1914 before the Advance

Sketch 3: The Enemy in the Battle at Namur and Mons

Sketch 4: The Situation of German Fourth and Fifth Armies, 24 August 1914, on the Morning Preceding Movement

Sketch 5: The Enemy in the Fighting at Neufchâteau and Longwy, 22–23 August 1914

Sketch 6: The Situation of First, Second, and Third Armies on the Morning of 25 August 1914 before the Advance

Sketch 7: The Enemy in the Battle on 25–26 August 1914 at Le Cateau, Othain, and Meurthe

Sketch 8: The French and British Retreat Following the Battle of the Frontiers

Sketch 9: Fourth Army, 26 August 1914

Sketch 10: Fifth Army, 26 August 1914

Sketch 11: Fourth Army, 27 August 1914

Sketch 12: Fourth Army, 28 August 1914

Sketch 13: The French Fourth Army in the Battle on the Meuse, 28 August 1914

Sketch 14: The French Fifth Army in the Battle at St. Quentin, 29 August 1914

Sketch 15: The French Third Army in the Battle on the Meuse, 29–31 August 1914

Sketch 16: The German Situation in Belgium on 1 September 1914

Sketch 17: Maubeuge

Sketch 18: The Belgian and French Railways as Captured and Reconstructed to 9 September 1914


WAR IS A REACTIVE BUSINESS, A COMPETITION WHOSE OUTCOME IS DEPENDENT not on some sort of absolute standard of excellence on the part of one side, but on the relative superiority of one side over another. It is this relationship—the dynamic between two opponents as each struggles to impose its will on the other—that should be at the heart of operational military history. But it rarely is. Military history, for all its massive progress in the past two or three decades, particularly in the English-speaking world, remains far too national—and even nationalistic—in its approach. If the serious study of military history as a self-contained subject has a significant agenda for the future, it is this—to be comparative.

For no war and no front is this injunction more important or more pressing than for the First World War and its Western Front. The cycle of action and reaction between two coalitions, which were remarkably similar in their military organizations and in the technologies they employed, produced a conflict that was not as static as suggested by the immobility of the trenches that dominated the character of the fighting. It has now become axiomatic that modern war was conceived and developed through the experience of this titanic fight and the lessons it bequeathed. But the military history on which such arguments rest continues to be lopsided. English-language historians, not just Britons but also Americans, Australians, Canadians, and New Zealanders, have done more than those writing in French and German to deepen our understanding of the conduct of operations on the Western Front. However, their research is too often written from the perspective of one side. It pays little or no attention to the sources available to the Germans, for what those tell us about German intentions, German reactions, or even German perspectives on British and French efforts.

This gap is all the more extraordinary because the German official history of the war on land, Der Weltkrieg, is not a rare set of volumes, at least for the war up to the spring of 1917—a point it had reached with Volume XII, published in 1939. By then the pace of its authors was quickening: the events of 1914 had taken six volumes, those of 1915 three, and those of 1916 two. Two more volumes appeared to take the story to November 1918. Being completed during the Second World War, Volumes XIII and XIV never gained wide circulation. Five hundred copies of each were reprinted in 1956 but did not sell out until 1975.

Such disappointing sales were indicative of two phenomena. First, the Second World War had made the study of the First World War deeply unfashionable throughout Europe—a trend that changed in Britain only after 1964, with the fiftieth anniversary of the war’s outbreak, and in Germany (if at all) only after 2004, with the ninetieth anniversary. Second, German military history after 1945, insofar as it survived at all, stepped away from the operational focus embraced by the General Staff historians of the Wilhelmine period, of which Der Weltkrieg was the final manifestation. This condition still pertains: operational military history struggles to acquire the respectability in German academic circles that it has now attained in the English-speaking world. The British official history has been reprinted; the German one has not been, despite the scarcity of Volumes XIII and XIV.

These two arguments may be sufficient explanations for the neglect of Der Weltkrieg by German historians in Germany, but they do not apply to English-speaking historians. Their reasons for not consulting Der Weltkrieg more frequently are, presumably, linguistic. For monoglot scholars, this translation will be a boon beyond measure. It has been fashionable to rubbish the work of the official historians of the First World War, whatever language they wrote in. Sir James Edmonds, whose labours on behalf of Britain were not completed until 1948, and who has been criticized by David French, Tim Travers, and Denis Winter—to cite three historians with very different perspectives—presided over an enterprise that may not conform to current expectations of historians but that nonetheless strove hard for objectivity. As Stephen Green has shown in Writing the Great War: Sir James Edmonds and the Official Histories 1915–1948 (2003), this was team writing avant la lettre. Draft narratives were compiled from the documents and then, in the search for balance, were circulated to the surviving participants for their comments. Edmonds’s creation could lay much greater claim to unbiased authority than could, say, Basil Liddell Hart’s The Real War, probably the most widely read one-volume account of the war in the English language between 1930 and 1964. Markus Pöhlmann has produced a study comparable to Green’s on the writing of Der Weltkrieg, to which this foreword (and the editors of the series) are heavily indebted. Kriegsgeschichte und Geschichtspolitik: der Erste Weltkrieg. Die amtliche deutsche Militärgeschichtsschreibung 1914–1956 (2002) shows us that the historians of the Reichsarchiv—the organization established in 1919 to produce the German official history—were as thorough in their construction of the operational story. The first head of the Reichsarchiv’s section for the collection of documents, Theodor Jochim, distinguished its work from that of academic historians, contending that the events of the war, strategy and tactics can only be considered from a neutral, purely objective perspective which weighs things dispassionately and is independent of any ideology.

The Nazis’ rise to power in 1933 would test this resolve. Volume IX was published in 1933 and so was the last to appear under the old regime. The president of the Reichsarchiv that year, Hans von Haeften, resisted flying the swastika flag over the office building. In 1934 the Reichsarchiv, which even though staffed by former army officers had thus far remained an independent body at least in name, was subordinated to the Wehrmacht. It has therefore been easy to condemn the later volumes of Der Weltkrieg as ideologically tainted. But this is both to exaggerate the impact of the Nazis on the writing of the history and at the same time to underplay a pre-existing issue whose roots date back not to Weimar but to Wilhelmine Germany.

After 1933, Jochim’s goal remained the guiding principle for the historians of the Wehrmacht, as it had been for those of the Reichsarchiv. Their careers had been formed under the Hohenzollerns, and their function within the army, as it had been for the historians of the Prussian General Staff, was not only to record but also to teach. Military history enabled officers of the future to learn from the examples of the past; they would not do so if mistakes committed by their predecessors were glossed over. Der Weltkrieg did not set out specifically to glorify the German soldier. His heroism in front-line combat had been the subject of a separate, more popular series edited by Georg Soldan, whose Schlachten des Weltkrieges covered individual battles in a run of thirty-six much slimmer volumes, the last of them published in 1930, three years before Hitler came to power. What did affect the writing of Der Weltkrieg was the course of Nazi foreign policy. The Reichsarchiv had established working relationships with the official historians of other powers, especially Britain. But when contacts with the Soviet Union, which had provided training areas for the Reichswehr in the late 1920s, were broken after 1933, the comparative input available for the earlier volumes began to wither. During the Second World War itself, Volume XIV—dealing with the events of 1918—was censored for fear of upsetting Rumania (Germany’s ally in the Second World War, if not in the First) and Bulgaria (an ally in both wars). These political pressures drove the German official historians even more toward a purely military narrative of events.

This focus on military history narrowly defined was a product not of Nazi rule but of a much older tradition in German military thought, to be found in the quarter-century before the outbreak of the First World War in the famous dispute between Hans Delbrück, professor of history in Berlin, and the military historians of the General Staff. Delbrück argued that Frederick the Great in the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) had adopted a strategy of attrition, designed to wear out the coalition of France, Austria, and Russia by manoeuvre; whereas the staff historians said that Frederick’s strategy was one of annihilation, using manoeuvre to seek battle. Both were right, because each was focusing on a different level of war. Delbrück was concerned to place war in its political context; the staff historians were considering the operational aspects, the relationship between strategy and tactics. So determined were the latter that the conduct of war could be separated from its political objectives that they could not even see the point of Delbrück’s argument. Aspects of the dispute with Delbrück lingered on after the war until his death in 1929. Delbrück was one of ten academics appointed to the historical commission to oversee the work of the Reichsarchiv, and the bulk of them favoured placing the war in its political context. They were not helped when the Foreign Ministry refused to cooperate, as it wanted to produce its own story, the better to rebut the terms of the Versailles Treaty of 1919. This suited the General Staff historians, who by 1923 had established virtual control over the entire project, convinced that they could produce an adequate history of the war that was almost exclusively military in its focus.

Their hopes rested on an illusion: Der Weltkrieg could not be apolitical. German officers—like those of many other armies—were wont to protest their political neutrality; Hans von Seeckt, the head of the surrogate General Staff between 1919 and 1926, provided a case in point. But both the German Army and its Chief of the General Staff had too great a professional role in forming German policy for that to be a deliverable aspiration. Germany had been united by war, and its subsequent history until 1945 was shaped by it. The focus on operations carried its own implications for the formulation of German strategy between 1870 and 1945: operational excellence came to be seen as the tool that could cut through Germany’s problems—its encircled position in Europe, its quantitative inferiority in the First World War, and its humiliation at Versailles in 1919. The presumption in the didactic purpose of Der Weltkrieg was that there was a perfect solution to the conundrums of operations: that strategy and even policy could be subordinated to the operational level of war and that a war conducted as the military experts thought it should be waged would produce the right outcome for Germany.

This approach to the conduct of war was challenged from two directions. The first rested—logically enough—on the denouement to the war. In the fighting of the last hundred days, from August to November 1918, the German Army had been driven back by the combined forces of Britain, France, and the United States. The army’s response to the charge that it had been defeated in the field was to deflect the blame to the home front. The so-called stab in the back legend argued that the allied blockade had starved the German people, who had then been subverted by revolutionary socialism. Germany had left the war because the German nation had proved too weak, but the Germany army had remained undefeated.

That argument, for all its contentiousness, rested on an essential truth—that a citizen army fighting a total war could not be artificially separated from the wider currents in its parent society. But even for those who believed that Germany had been stabbed in the back, the Germany Army still faced a second and more serious challenge to its belief that operational excellence could win a war. That challenge derived not from how the war had ended but from how it had begun. In 1914 the German Army was confronted with a war on two fronts—against France and Britain in the West and Russia in the East. Given the diminutive size of its army, Britain’s entry to the war had minimal implications for Germany’s operational calculations; but Britain’s other strengths—its navy, and its dominance of the world’s trading routes and financial markets—changed the economic calculus on which the war rested. Germany’s estimation of the military power of its principal ally, Austria-Hungary, was not flattering, and simple mathematics suggested from the outset that this was not a war that Germany could win. The Entente powers could field more men and could draw on the resources of much of the world to supply them. Moreover, the longer the war lasted, the more those assets would tell in a struggle with the Central Powers. The German General Staff recognized that a war between coalitions was likely to be protracted and that in those circumstances, Germany would struggle. It therefore had to win the war quickly in order to escape the relentless logic of its own strategic position. It would rely, then, on its operational excellence to win the war quickly, thereby pre-empting the strengths of the Entente powers that were arrayed against it. It would stress quality over quantity. It would rely on its staff work and its understanding of strategic-tactical problems to enable it to apply mass against the decisive point—that is, to concentrate superior forces at the right place and at the right time. The exploitation of time and space—the hardy perennials of military planning—would be the basis of Germany’s solution to the geopolitical conundrum confronting it at the outbreak of the First World War.

By mid-September 1914, Germany’s hopes had been thwarted. The French Army, fighting a defensive battle along a massive front stretching from Paris in the west, along the river Marne, round to Verdun in the east and then south to the Swiss border, had managed time and space better than the Germans. Joffre, their Commander-in-Chief, had been able to thin his line in the east and create a masse de manoeuvre for use in the west. Using railway lines to shuttle troops back to the area around Paris, he was able to hit the German right wing in its flank. The latter, which had swung through Belgium and into France from the north, was defeated in part by the very challenges of time and space that it had sought to surmount. The Germans’ First and Second Armies had to march too far too fast with inadequate supplies and across fractured communications, while simultaneously dropping off troops to hold the ground they had occupied in Belgium and northern France. As with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, the seeds of the Germans’ defeat rested in part on the very ambition of what they were trying to do. But at the tactical level, it was the Battle of the Marne that confirmed the incipient operational collapse.

This book, which provides translations from the first three volumes of Der Weltkrieg, addresses the drama of the war’s opening weeks. In a sense, the German Army, once it had been defeated on the Marne, had already lost the war. Four more years of fighting may have been required in order to confirm that outcome, but the Battle of the Marne meant that Germany had not won the war in short order. Because it lacked the resources to win a long war, it could not—according to mathematical logic—win at all. But this was not an interpretation with which the German Army could be comfortable, either in 1914 itself or after 1918. Its press communiqués issued during the battle and in its immediate aftermath, between 6 and 16 September, presented the movements of First and Second Armies not as a retreat but as a manoeuvre to enable a fresh attack. As Karl Lange noted in Marneschlacht und deutsche Öffentlichkeit 1914–1939. Eine verdrängte Niederlage und ihre Folgen (1974), the German public was left to puzzle over how an apparently continuous advance had not produced victory.

After 1919 the German Army could not afford to explain what had happened in systemic terms. Geopolitically, the Treaty of Versailles had left the problems of how best to defend the Reich in a worse place than they had been in 1914. Once again the army looked to resolve political intractability through operational methods; thus it explained the outcome on the Marne by pinning the blame not on the army collectively but on the failures of individuals. By this interpretation, the army had been bequeathed a plan by Alfred von Schlieffen, Chief of the General Staff between 1891 and 1905, that would have guaranteed victory in short order if only it had been carried out as its creator had intended. The reason it had not been was the product neither of the scale of the problem nor of the performance of the French Army, but of individual weakness. The commander of the First Army, the forceful Alexander von Kluck, was blamed for exposing his flank to a thrust from Paris as he pushed south across the Marne. As he turned to face west, he had opened a gap between his right and the Germany Second Army, commanded by Karl von Bülow. The latter took the initial decision to withdraw, in an endeavour to close the gap, but this was communicated to the staff of First Army by Richard Hentsch. Hentsch, an intelligence officer on the staff of Oberste Heeresleitung I, had been sent by his superior (and Schlieffen’s successor as Chief of the General Staff), Helmuth von Moltke the Younger, to find out the situation along the front. Neither Hentsch nor Bülow knew Kluck’s situation when Second Army began its withdrawal, but it left Kluck with no option but to conform. All four were made to carry the burden of losing the battle and therefore, on one interpretation, the war. They sacrificed their own individual reputations, but the collective self-image of the German Army remained intact.

As a result, the German Army’s belief that operational remedies could do duty for a broader conception of strategy survived the defeats of both 1914 and 1918. This would later underpin the intellectual foundations (if intellectual is not too grand a word) of Germany’s victory in France in 1940. This also meant that the contents of the six volumes of Der Weltkrieg devoted to 1914—especially the first three—were the source of considerable controversy. No other phase of the war would attract so much debate in the 1920s, and for no other phase would the dispute be as personalized. Wilhelm Groener, who figures in Der Weltkrieg’s pages as the head of the Railway Section of the General Staff, and who was the Weimar government’s Minister of War between 1928 and 1932, wrote two volumes to show how Schlieffen had pointed Moltke on the path to victory in the battle of Germany against an enormous superiority in numbers. Moltke became the scapegoat for the defeat at the Marne both in September 1914, when he was replaced by Erich von Falkenhayn, the Prussian Minister of War, and in Der Weltkrieg.

For the German Army the defeat in the west was redeemed by victory in the east. This, too, was personalized. It has been argued that Der Weltkrieg was written to glorify Paul von Hindenburg and (especially) Erich Ludendorff, just as it has been said (wrongly, as Andrew Green shows) that Edmonds used the British official history to defend Douglas Haig. Hindenburg and Ludendorff were given the credit for the Russian defeat at Tannenberg in East Prussia in late August 1914. Wolfgang Foerster, who in 1934 became the director of the Forschungsanstalt für Kriegs- und Heeresgeschichte, as the Reichsarchiv was now called, treated the victory at Tannenberg as a model battle on par with the great German victories of Leipzig in 1813 and Sedan in 1870. The lesson from all three cases was that the use of envelopment as an operational method had led to a decisive victory. So the real influence on Foerster’s argument was not so much Ludendorff as Schlieffen. In 1921, Foerster had published Graf Schlieffen und der Weltkrieg, a book designed to show how Schlieffen’s legacy had shaped Germany’s conduct of the war. However, the combination of Ludendorff’s right-wing radicalism and his mental instability increasingly alienated him from his former colleagues on the General Staff in general and from the Reichsarchiv in particular. The authors employed on Der Weltkrieg never subjected Hindenburg and Ludendorff to the sort of psychological profiling that they accorded to their predecessors, Moltke and Falkenhayn, although in 1952, Foerster published an independent study of Ludendorff’s psychological state in the final stages of the First World War, Der Feldherr Ludendorff im Unglück.

Most of the papers that went into the writing of Der Weltkrieg were destroyed in 1945, when the Royal Air Force bombed the depository in which the Prussian military archives were stored. That is the single most compelling reason for according the utmost seriousness to this book. Unlike the official histories of the other major belligerents of the First World War, that of Germany can never be written again, at least not from a comparable primary source base. However, the military papers of the other states of imperial Germany have survived, and so have collections of private papers belonging to those involved in the writing of Der Weltkrieg. Most important, the papers that were still the subject of active investigation by official historians were kept elsewhere and so were not destroyed in 1945. Having been stored in Potsdam during the Cold War, they have now been united with the military archives in Freiburg. From these it is clear that many facets of Germany’s war effort other than the operational level of its conduct interested the Reichsarchiv and its successors. Although the volumes of Der Weltkrieg are Eurocentric, theatres outside Europe were covered briefly and were due to be the subject of individual studies. Ludwig Boell’s monumental history of the East African campaign, completed in 1944, was effectively recreated by its author after the war and then privately published. Most weighty were the projected volumes on the economic history of the war, of which only the first, prewar volumes ever appeared.

Mark Humphries, John Maker, and translator Wilhelm J. Kiesselbach are to be congratulated on a major achievement. The opening weeks of the First World War marked the moment when Napoleonic visions of war, of manoeuvre resulting in decisive battle—the goal of so much staff college teaching and of so many planning expectations—crashed to the ground. Conceived on a scale unparalleled in the history of war, and sustained by armies too big to be themselves sustained, those hopes and intentions collapsed under their own logistical weight. Truly mass armies could not manoeuvre as easily in practice as in theory. The trench warfare that followed is well known, but in so many respects the long haul from late 1914 to late 1918 cannot match the drama of this story, which was played out at speed and across so much of Europe. The big opening battles prompted their participants to write their memoirs in the interwar years in a way that the later battles did not, and they became the wheel on which the reputations of senior commanders were made as well as broken. Never again would the Western Front provide such an obvious opportunity for the exercise of higher command. This phase of the First World War is above all the one that demands that we take operational military history seriously.

Hew Strachan

Chichele Professor of the History of War

University of Oxford


THIS FIRST VOLUME OF GERMANY’S WESTERN FRONT—THE SECOND TO BE published in the series but the first in numerical order—is the work of many hands. The series began in 2006 with a search for existing translations from scattered German-language sources in Ottawa, Pennsylvania, Washington, Kansas, and London. In Ottawa, Tim Cook, Owen Cooke, Sarah Cozzi, Steve Harris, Andrew Iarocci, Barbara Wilson, the staff of the Directorate of History and Heritage, the Canadian War Museum, and Library and Archives Canada were all enormously helpful in tracking down unutilized German sources and translations in Canada. At the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, we were assisted most ably by the circulation and reference staffs, especially David Keough, as well as by our friend Michael Neiberg. The circulation and reference staffs of the National Archives and Records Administration in Washington, the Combined Arms Research Library at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the National Archives, Kew, were also most helpful. Many others have contributed to this project in one way or another at conferences or in private discussion. Tim Cook especially has been a friend and has pushed us toward realizing our goals in this project. He also provided funding for translations that will appear in later volumes.

At Wilfrid Laurier University Press, the editors want to thank Brian Henderson for being flexible on timelines and willing to think in grand terms, not single books. We’d also like to acknowledge the work of Ryan Chynces, Lisa Quinn, Rob Kohl-meier, Penelope Grows, Clare Hitchens, Leslie Macredie, Heather Blain-Yanke, and Cheryl Beaupré. All of these people contributed to the book in one way or another.

At the University of Ottawa, John thanks Rich Connors and Galen Perras for their support and guidance over the years. His colleagues in the PhD program, which he completed in 2010, include Nicholas Clarke, Mark Bourrie, Daniel Macfarlane, and Max Dagenais, all of whom provided support and encouragement. There John is most grateful to Serge Durflinger, whose patient guidance, advice, and support have helped him navigate some rough waters. John also thanks Jeffrey Keshen, a supportive and kind friend, at Mount Royal University. Mark would also like to thank his colleagues in the Department of History at Memorial University of Newfoundland for their assistance and support.

The Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies (LCMSDS) at Wilfrid Laurier University—Mark Humphries’s home between 2003 and 2008 and John Maker’s during 2003 and 2004, when both were students of Terry Copp, Roger Sarty, and John Laband—has provided the funding for most of the translations. A centre of excellence in the Department of National Defence’s Security and Defence Forum program, the centre provides an academic home for students and researchers alike, where both editors have had the pleasure to work with Brandy Barton, Mike Bechthold, Michelle Fowler, Geoff Keelan, Kellen Kurschinski, Vanessa McMackin, Matt Symes, Jane Whalen, and Jim Wood.

Travelling, obtaining copies of the German official history, and arranging translations, was costly. Both editors therefore owe the following organizations and people a great debt of gratitude. Alexander Freund, the Chair in German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg, and the Spletzer Family Foundation provided a generous grant for translation, materials acquisition, and travel in 2007 that continues to support the series. The bulk of the funding, though, has come from the LCMSDS, which has paid for the translations in this volume; the trips taken by Mark Humphries and Geoff Keelan to the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, PA, to copy existing translations from the 1930s; and the software necessary to turn hundreds of typewritten paper pages into editable text. Faculty professional development funds and a research grant from Memorial University of Newfoundland also allowed Dr. Humphries to aquire important texts related to the field that were not in the university library and to purchase equipment that was used in the production of this volume. This book really could not have happened without the assistance of either organization.

Our families and friends have been the only casualties in this endeavour, having been forced to discuss the finer points of the translation process and Germany in the First World War ad nauseam now for more than five years—longer than the Great War itself. Mark wants to thank his partner Lianne Leddy, a fellow historian, for her understanding and patience. John would like to thank his parents and siblings for their love and support. He also thanks his wife Tammy for her inestimable patience, understanding, and willingness to listen attentively to the minutiae of this project. He also thanks his daughter Imogen—her inspirational zest for life is a reminder that sometimes it really is all about the ABCs.

Penultimately, Mr. Kiesselbach has been generous enough to devote considerable time and energy to this project. His dedication has been unwavering, and his generosity, translation skill, and interpretive competence have allowed us to continue this work despite cramped budgets. Readers will note that his name now appears on the cover of this edition as translator whereas it was absent last time (although his contributions were explained in the text). While the editorial process has not changed, this addition recognizes Mr. Kiesselbach’s growing comfort with the difficult source material (at least in terms of turning it into recognizable English) and the sheer quality of his initial translations. Most of all, though, it is necessary to acknowledge that without Wilhelm’s skillful translations, there would be no volume before you today!

Last, but most important, this project and the editors owe Terry Copp, the director of LCMSDS and Professor Emeritus at Wilfrid Laurier University, more than can be expressed. Terry has been a tireless advocate for the project (and both editors’ careers), but he also believed in the editors’ vision and provided the time, research space, and financial assistance necessary to see the project through to completion. Terry is always there to lend an ear and to debate ideas great and small. He has pushed both of us to find the best evidence, to ask the most pertinent questions, and to be good historians striving for important things to say. While it is up to others to judge whether we have met his expectations, we have done our best to live up to his example. Again, as we noted in the last volume, this book and the series as a whole are dedicated to him for his work of inspiring Canadian students to study military history and pursue their academic endeavours.


ON 14 APRIL 1945, A BRITISH BOMBER DROPPED SEVERAL FIVE-TON BOMBS OVER the Bauhausberg in Potsdam. They pierced the roof of the German national archive’s warehouse and fell through seven floors of documents, exploding in the basement. The combination of incendiary devices and high explosives melted the steel girders holding up the warehouse’s immense collection of books and papers. As the posts fell in, the building collapsed. Germany’s Great War records burned in the inferno.¹

The quiet, tree-lined streets along the Teltow Canal had been home to the Reichsarchiv (Imperial German Archives) and its military historians since the autumn of 1919.² In November of that year, officers from the Kriegsgeschichte des Großen Generalstabes (War History Section of the Great General Staff) transported the Reich’s war documents away from the political instability of the capital.³ They shepherded boatload after boatload of records—piled high on open barges—down the canal towards the former Reichskriegsschule, an imposing rectangular building crowned by a distinctive tower and set next to an elegant mansion that would become the Reichsarchiv warehouse.⁴ In these two buildings, Reichsarchiv historians—civilian in rank but officers by trade—toiled away for more than two decades on an official history of Germany’s war effort. By the spring of 1945 they had produced three series of books—two popular and one academic—and had assisted researchers working on hundreds of regimental histories and dozens of films.⁵ They guarded access to Germany’s war records and actively moulded an official memory of the war that would remain consistent in the shifting intellectual and political currents of interwar Germany. The results of their labour comprise the most comprehensive history of Germany’s military effort in the Great War and the only secondary source to be written with unfettered access to a long ago destroyed documentary record.

The April 1945 bombing raid destroyed the types of records that English-language historians are accustomed to using in their studies of the Great War. Nearly all gone are the war diaries, orders, operational plans, maps, ration cards, situation reports, and telegrams relating to the conflict. In the early 1990s it was revealed that some of the records housed in the historians’ offices in the Reich-skriegsschule had in fact survived. In August 1945 they were confiscated by the Soviet government, some eventually ending up in Moscow, others remaining in Potsdam. All were inaccessible to Western historians until they were returned to the Bundesarchiv in 1990. While this bloc of some 3,000 files and 50 boxes is of great importance, it is important to note that they do not replace the papers lost in April 1945. They are the working files of Germany’s official historians—that is, they are the files that were generated in the course of researching and writing the official histories.⁶ As Helmut Otto notes, they comprise business documents, correspondence, research notes, studies, field reports, manuscript drafts, copies of corrected drafts, galley proofs, copies of documents from military and political authorities and agencies, excerpts from officer’s personal war diaries and writings with notes from the editors, and newspaper clippings.⁷ As working papers they are partially digested history, closer to the raw materials than other secondary sources; but they are not a comprehensive primary archive, for they have already been subjected to various processes of selection and exclusion.⁸ Their greatest contribution has been to confirm the value of the official histories and the work of the Reichsarchiv historians.⁹

In its self-appointed aim, Der Weltkrieg is a generally accurate, academically rigorous, and straightforward account of military operations—at least in comparison with the other official histories of its day, which must serve as our basis of comparison. Reichsarchiv historians worked in teams focused on particular subject areas.¹⁰ They analyzed the available sources, identified gaps and contradictions, and solicited clarification from surviving participants. They worked with a precision and methodology that would be impossible for any single historian to duplicate. Their purposes, above all, were to provide lessons for future soldiers and to distil a historical meaning of the war for the German veterans who had actually fought in it. Both purposes required the pursuit of truth (an objective that no one would propose today, in this postmodern age), for it would have been counterproductive to intentionally mislead the reader. As a case in point, all information presented in the main text is taken directly from archival documents, whereas insights derived from personal diaries, memoirs, or correspondence with veterans are presented in footnotes, as are the sources for potentially contentious pieces of information. The reason for this approach was to red-flag parts of the narrative where personal bias and motivation might colour the analysis. Once satisfied that they got the facts right, these teams produced first-draft monographs, which senior historians later revised and condensed into a synthesized final text.¹¹

In this narrative, the facts would be allowed to speak for themselves. The foreword to the 1925 edition of the series’ first volume reads as follows:

The work does not claim to present a picture of the operations and their consequences brought to perfection by criticism. Given the short amount of time which had elapsed since the events took place, this is not possible at present. These problems can only be solved when the personal papers of army commanders and combatants become available, when works of scholarship become more readily accessible, and when the archives of our erstwhile allies and adversaries are opened up. Therefore criticism had to be restrained, but all the clues necessary to evaluate the events have been presented here, with frankness and without reservation.¹²

If the intent of the Reichsarchiv was to create an impression of objectivity and frankness, then we must say that they succeeded—at least, that was the judgment of contemporary historians. The military historians, who remain anonymous, deserve great credit for their splendid work, wrote Alexander Johnson in a 1931 book review for Journal of Modern History. They present their story in simple, readable language that will sustain the interest of the lay reader and with a degree of fact-finding objectivity which commends itself to the military reader and student.¹³ This positive reading of Der Weltkrieg by a contemporary historian might surprise modern readers. Some recent writers have suggested that it was heavily influenced by the politics of National Socialism or that its language is too archaic and outmoded to be understood clearly today.¹⁴ But these criticisms are baseless. Nine of the series’ fourteen volumes were written and published before 1933, and even a cursory reading of the remaining five volumes reveals that they can hardly be dismissed en masse as Nazi propaganda.¹⁵ As the newly available files from the KGFA suggest, much of the research for these volumes was completed well before the outbreak of the Second World War. Furthermore, the language is no more archaic or outmoded than Edmonds’s history or that of other works of a similar vintage. As Hew Strachan points out: The reluctance to use inter-war German histories on the grounds that they are tainted by Nazism is not only chronological nonsense … but also an absurd self-denying ordinance, given the destruction of the bulk of the German military archives in 1945. The Reichsarchiv historians saw material we can never see.¹⁶

Any examination of Germany’s First World War must begin with the published work of these official historians—although it certainly cannot end there. Of the three sets of official histories that were produced between 1919 and 1945, the academic series (for lack of a better term) Der Weltkrieg, 1914 bis 1918 is the most comprehensive. The Weltkriegwerk, as it is also known, provides a narrative overview of the Great War spread across fourteen volumes published between 1925 and 1944.¹⁷ In form, Der Weltkrieg is typical of other national official histories of the period. It is a top-down military history of operations that rarely takes the narrative below the level of the infantry division. While focusing on German military operations on land, it presents summary chapters on naval and air operations, the economy, foreign policy, the political situation, and logistics. Like other official works of the period, it ignores the social and cultural history of the war. Its greatest strength and inherent flaw is its single-minded focus on military operations.

The material in this first volume of Germany’s Western Front is taken from Volumes I and III of Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918: Die militärischen Operationen zu Land, authored anonymously by the Reichsarchiv historians and first published by E.S. Mittler und Sohn in 1925 and 1926.¹⁸ The current volume is the first of two parts on 1914, covering events from the outbreak of war to the eve of the Battle of the Marne. Of the fourteen volumes comprising Der Weltkrieg 1914 bis 1918, six cover the first five months of the war. Of these, the first is devoted to the period of planning and mobilization and the Battle of the Frontiers (28 June 1914 to 25 August 1914). The second covers events in East Prussia to the Battle of the Masurian Lakes (10 September 1914), while the third details the pursuit from the Sambre to the Marne (25 August to 4 September). The fourth volume examines the First Battle of the Marne and its immediate aftermath from 5 to 14 September. The fifth and sixth carry the narrative from 15 September to the end of the year.

Given budgetary constraints and length requirements, it was necessary to be highly selective in choosing material for translation. This meant that not everything related to the Western Front could be included. The original volumes were organized chronologically by phases in the overall campaign: war planning; mobilization and deployment; the beginning of the advance; the battles of the frontiers; the pursuit; and the advance to the Marne. In each section the narrative was broken into subparts, usually beginning with an overview of the decision-making process of the German Supreme Command (Oberste Heeresleitung; OHL) and the orders issued for each new phase of the campaign. Subsequent chapters, usually organized by army, then recounted the specific events and operations on that sector of the front from the perspective of army and sometimes corps headquarters. Major engagements (such as the Battles of Mons, Neufchâteau, and St. Quentin) were dealt with in subsectioned narratives, usually one day (or part of a day) at a time. Some phases were bookended with an overview of the OHL’s role during that part of the campaign; at other places, this same function was accomplished in the chapter on the OHL beginning the next section of the text. Stand-alone chapters examined the role of the Railway Department; the sieges of Liège, Namur, and Maubeuge; and events to the rear of the army in Belgium. The first volume also presented a self-contained analytical review of the campaign to 26 August. Fortunately, each chapter of Der Weltkrieg is written to be self-contained—that is, each chapter presents a coherent and stand-alone narrative for a specific army, section of the front, or level of command. This has enabled us to choose to include or exclude chapters in their entirety while retaining the coherence of the whole. Where chapters have been omitted, a narrative summary with detailed excerpts has been included along with explanatory footnotes at necessary places in the text. These are presented in an italic typeface to differentiate them from original material.

In selecting material for translation, our objective was to maintain a coherent narrative of decision-making processes in the OHL, the relationship between the OHL and its advancing armies, decision making at the army level on the critical right wing, and events for those armies that faced the British and the French on the far German right. We thus chose to translate each chapter pertaining to planning, grand strategy, and the conduct of operations by the OHL. Each of these chapters deals with the entire front and provides internal summaries of events at each army headquarters as well as the OHL’s decision making and its interactions with commanders at the front. We have had to be more selective in our decisions to translate the operational narratives. To this end, we have translated all material relating to First, Second, and Third Armies in their entirety and, in places, material for Fourth Army (where the original text dealt with it and Third Army in a combined chapter). Regrettably, this means that the narrative of operations in Alsace, Lorraine, and the Ardennes has been omitted. But this does not mean that we have ignored the critical decision-making processes that spawned those operations—an issue of broader significance. Thanks to the original organizational structure of Der Weltkrieg, those processes have been preserved in each of the OHL chapters. Where necessary we have provided lengthy summaries of events on those fronts with extensive paginated translations of specific portions of the original text to supplement the narrative at the High Command. This means, for example, that the reader will be able to follow the decision making, reasoning, and orders that changed Sixth and Seventh Armies’ role in the campaign, but will have to look elsewhere for a description of the actual fighting during the French advance on the Saar and the German counteroffensive toward Nancy.¹⁹ We felt, given our English-language audience, that it was most essential to maintain a consistent operational narrative of events on the right wing while situating those operations in a wider context.²⁰

This means we have imposed our own biases and assumptions on the texts, more so than in later volumes in the series. But we have tried to be as transparent as possible about this decision making. Those interested in reading these missing narratives in translation can visit or contact the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which holds a rough translation of the complete first volume of the German official history, much of which was used in the preparation of this volume; it alone runs to almost 1,000 manuscript pages.²¹ It should also be noted that the library at Carlisle holds dozens of other manuscript translations of many key German works from the interwar period—including those by Kuhl, Groener, Foerster, and others—that have not been translated elsewhere.²² Also, rough translations by Wilhelm Kiesselbach of material excluded from the third volume of Der Weltkrieg have been completed and are deposited with the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada. For the 1916 and 1917–18 volumes of this series, we plan to return to the standard employed in the 1915 volume (the first one published)—that is, to translate all materials related to grand strategy, command-level decision making, and operations on the Western Front.

These tough editorial decisions have been necessary because the 1914 volumes of Der Weltkrieg amount to a massive 3,255 pages that cover only 151 days of the war—roughly 22 pages per day. According to Markus Pohlmann, the events of 1914 comprise 40 percent of the total length of the series.²³ The remaining eight volumes, which detail operations in the years 1915 (21 percent), 1916 (15 percent), 1917 (13 percent), and 1918 (11 percent), are all significantly more condensed, if we may use that word.²⁴ This is understandable because, for many former German General Staff officers, the opening campaign was the only one of critical significance, for it alone held promise of a complete German victory. When he assumed the position of head of the OHL in September 1914, Falkenhayn himself admitted that once the Battle of the Marne was lost, Germany had no plan for a great and decisive victory, nor any real hope of achieving one.²⁵ So, if the official history was intended to distil the lessons taught by experience for those who fought the war and for future German soldiers, the series’ main task was to address the critical period when German war plans were laid, implemented, and failed. The first volumes of the series were thus organized around two key questions: Why did the German war plans fail? And who or what was responsible for that failure? To understand how Der Weltkrieg’s authors went about answering these political and culturally sensitive questions, we must place them in a larger historical context, for the official history is not a stand-alone text; rather, it is part of a larger debate about Germany’s foreign relations and the role of the military in German society.

The debate of the 1920s had its long beginning in a controversy involving German soldiers and civilian intellectuals.²⁶ In 1879, civilian historian Hans Delbrück challenged professional German soldiers on the General Staff and in the Kriegsakademie who held that the key to victory in any war lay in pursuing a strategy of annihilation in battle (Niederwerfungsstrategie or Vernichtungsstrategie).²⁷ As Robert Foley argues, standard German military thinking was based on a conventional reading of Clausewitz’s On War and followed the Napoleonic tradition of using the army to destroy an enemy’s ability to make war, thus placing the state in a position to dictate rather than negotiate peace.²⁸ Soldiers argued that this had been the successful strategy used by German generals from Frederick the Great to Moltke the Elder, and they based their own operational planning on it. ²⁹ But Delbrück, a university professor from outside the military establishment, questioned whether an annihilation strategy was always desirable. In his analysis, such a position was based on flawed historical thinking. He argued that Frederick the Great had in fact sought to minimize large-scale fighting during the Seven Years’ War and that instead he had tried to defeat Austria in a number of smaller engagements, waiting—through attrition—until they were ready to negotiate peace.³⁰ Delbrück even claimed that Clausewitz had reached the same conclusion; and that he had planned to rewrite On War to better balance these two strategic options—annihilation or attrition (Ermattungsstrategie)—but died of cholera before he could do so.³¹ Attrition, said Delbrück, was the real lesson taught by history. While the argument may have been historical and largely academic, Delbrück’s challenge was unusual in Imperial Germany, for it amounted to a critique of the professional competence of the most important institution in the Reich; moreover, it had implications for contemporary war planning.³² In preparing for future wars, should Germany bank on annihilation or attrition? In engaging in a very public debate, the German military clearly staked its reputation on annihilation.³³

In its planning for a war on two fronts in the decades before the Great War, the German General Staff clung to its chosen strategy. The end result was popularly known as the Schlieffen Plan.³⁴ While this plan—its origins, ideas, purpose, and very existence—has been the subject of much controversy in recent years, at a basic level, German strategy aimed to bring about a great battle in the West, one that would destroy France’s ability to make war through a sweeping envelopment in a single campaign lasting no more than forty days.³⁵ It was a tantalizingly simple solution (in principle) to Germany’s strategic need to fight France and Russia simultaneously and to defeat one of its two enemies quickly. It was built upon more than 150 years of German military tradition, and while Schlieffen may or may not have intended his 1905 memorandum to act as an actual operations plan, the basic idea that it described formed the basis of Moltke the Younger’s operations plan in the summer of 1914.³⁶ Its failure proved catastrophic for Germany and the General Staff, which was dismantled in 1919 by the Treaty of Versailles.

For Delbrück, the failure of the annihilation strategy confirmed the correctness of his own position. Germany, he argued, should have defended in the West while attacking in the East. By holding its ground against France (and avoiding a violation of Belgian neutrality altogether) while eliminating Russia in the East, Germany would have found it possible to negotiate peace in the West.³⁷ This would have eliminated the threat to German security—namely, the Franco-Russian alliance—and accomplished the war’s political objectives.³⁸ The prewar debate over annihilation versus attrition continued in this vein, although its focus shifted from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to German planning between 1871 and 1914.³⁹

Former officers of the German General Staff who survived the war rallied to defend their 1914 plan and the strategic assumptions on which it was based. In a series of memoirs and retrospective analyses, various figures—including Hermann von Kuhl (First Army’s Chief of Staff),⁴⁰ Wolfgang Foerster (head of the Reichsarchiv),⁴¹ Wilhelm Groener (head of the OHL’s Railway Section in 1914),⁴² and Gerhard Tappen (head of the OHL’s Operations Section in 1914)⁴³—sought to explain why the German General Staff’s plan had failed, but they did so in ways that attempted to confirm the basic strategy’s validity. In separate works—sometimes analytically rigorous, sometimes polemical—details gradually were made public about Count Alfred von Schlieffen’s final 1905 memorandum, or Denkschrift, which members of the new Schlieffen School claimed represented the apogee of the revered German general’s thinking.⁴⁴ Most of their works argued that an originally brilliant plan had been altered, adulterated, then poorly implemented by Moltke the Younger.⁴⁵ In blaming the Chief of the General Staff for the failure, the former members of the German General Staff were attempting to prove that annihilation had been a sound strategy and that the man entrusted with implementing it had been the wrong person for the job.⁴⁶

When the first volume of Der Weltkrieg appeared in 1925, it delivered an important and weighty salvo in an already heated war of reputations. Some of the former officers who published their own works in favour of the annihilation school were simultaneously engaged in writing the official history (like Foerster) or reading draft chapters for comment (like Groener).⁴⁷ As the product of a historical team largely staffed by former members of the Great General Staff, Volume I must be read critically and with a view toward the historical and historiographical contexts in which it was produced. But its provenance does not negate its worth. Like any piece of history, readers must be mindful of how sources were selected, interpreted through an inevitable process of emphasis and suppression, and shaped by the assumptions and goals of individual historians. But as Foerster wrote in the original foreword to this volume, the goal of the series was to provide an authoritative account of how planning took place, how those plans were implemented, and why certain decisions were taken. The Reichsarchiv’s task was to present the war as it happened in the best tradition of Leopold von Ranke; it was up to readers to draw their own conclusions.

We discussed the limitations of this type of

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